Chatham Central School District’s annual Budget Vote and Board of Education Election is May 18, 2021, with voting taking place from 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. in the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School gymnasium. District residents will be asked to decide on a $33,050,383 budget for the 2021-2022 school year, elect candidates to fill two open seats on the Board of Education, and decide on a proposition that would continue to allow a Chatham High School student to serve on the Board of Education as a non-voting member.
The school budget carries a projected tax levy increase of 1.76 percent, which is below the allowable tax levy limit set by the NYS property tax cap. Spending is up a total of $693,528, a 2.14% percent increase from the current year’s budget that is due largely to inflation, contractual obligations, and rising retirement costs.
After several years of flat state aid, NYS provided Chatham with an increase in foundation aid this budget cycle, an unexpected revenue bump that, combined with the District’s ongoing practice of using reserves and fund balance, helped offset cost increases and allowed the District to reduce the tax levy to below the tax cap.
“This budget is about the future. Thanks to the flexibility and perseverance of our entire school community, we are weathering the storm and our schools are heading into the next school year in a much better position than we entered the current school year,” said Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Sal DeAngelo. “Along with fully funding our existing program and strengthening the services we provide our students, the 2021-22 school budget also allows us to continue to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19 yet still offer a tax levy that is sensitive to our taxpayers.”
Staffing levels were adjusted to reflect program needs. To meet an increasing need for student social-emotional services, an additional full-time school psychologist position was added to the budget.
Included in the budget are the purchases of two large school buses, part of the District’s ongoing bus replacement plan that keeps our fleet running safely and reliably by replacing older, high-mileage vehicles. Also built into the budget is a small capital project to update the motion-sensing alarm system in all District buildings, and an E-rate funded project to update the District’s WIFI.
Voting on the budget may also take place by absentee ballot. Absentee ballots must be applied for from the District Clerk, and must be returned to the District Clerk no later than 5:00 p.m. on the day of the vote.
How is the District Strengthening Services?
Despite the setbacks this year posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, CCSD is continually evaluating and updating our educational program. Below are some examples of recent initiatives designed to keep our schools moving forward.
Social and Emotional Support The 2021-22 budget includes the addition of a school psychologist position, which will help our District to meet the increasing need for mental health and social-emotional school support among our students, an issue which has been compounded by the COVID-19 crisis. Along with increasing the amount of direct support we are able to offer students, our District seeks to build capacity amongst instructional staff to provide a unified, multi-tiered approach to meet individual student needs.
Connectivity The District applied for and will receive Federal Communications Commission E-rate funding for a district-wide WIFI upgrade project. With our current wireless network nearing the end of its useful life, the upgrade will not only provide newer technology, but also enlarge the network’s capacity and eliminate areas in our schools where connectivity is currently limited. The E-rate allocation will reimburse the District for 70 percent of the cost of the project.
Learning Loss Recovery The District is in the process of developing extended learning programs for our elementary, middle, and high school students who have struggled academically due to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Athletic Facilities Our facilities department is implementing a series of field improvements to increase their safety and playability. This includes improved soil conditioning, fertilization and seeding practices on all grass fields, rebuilding the pitcher’s mound on the baseball field, reconditioning the baseball and softball infields, and reworking the long jump pit, triple jump pit, and shot put field.
Security System Upgrades
Included in the 2021-22 budget is a small capital project to update our burglar alarm system in our elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as the bus garage and Chatham Public Library. The project includes upgrading motion sensors and control panels, and integrating the system with our buildings’ fire alarm and swipe-card door access systems. The upgrades would greatly improve system controls and the ability to manage staff access to our buildings after hours, as well as reduce instances of false alarms that require emergency response services to be called out.
The project would not exceed $100,000 and does not increase the 2021-22 budget because money for small annual capital projects was built into the budget in previous years. Because Chatham is entitled to approximately 50 percent state aid on capital projects, the District would be reimbursed for approximately half of the cost of this project.
Through similar capital projects spread out over the past four years, the District replaced and integrated the swipe-card door access systems at the High School, Middle School, and Elementary School.
Chatham Public Library – Serving the Greater Community
The Chatham Central School District budget fully funds the Chatham Public Library, which is one of only two public libraries in the state that are part of a school system. The Chatham Public Library and its branch in Canaan served more than 5,144 active borrowers this past year, who checked out items 42,077 times. Although in-person access to the library was unavailable for several months, an additional 290 patrons joined the library through its newly offered online system. The Library expanded online resources, and use of its online media collection more than quadrupled in 2020, with patrons accessing items 49,271 times. The Library also transitioned its programs to a virtual, Zoom, or modified platform so patrons could continue to enjoy them under social distancing guidelines, allowing the Library to offer 218 programs for children and adults, which were attended by over 2,097 patrons.
How Does the District Use Reserves and Fund Balance?
As a general practice, Chatham uses reserve accounts and fund balance to reduce year-to-year tax levy increases. Use of reserves and fund balance are part of the District’s long-term fiscal plan to provide for the financial stability of the District.
School officials will use reserves as necessary to cover revenue in areas where costs commonly fluctuate, such as retirement health insurance, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and tax certiorari.
The District allocated $1,341,600 of fund balance to reduce this year’s tax levy increase. Fund balance is a reserve much like a savings account – when District expenses are less than expected, or revenues are higher than projected, money remaining at the end of the year is held in the fund balance. The District utilizes fund balance each year as revenue in the budget to minimize spending cuts and hold down tax increases.
Impact of COVID-19
Remaining flexible has been key to our schools weathering the challenges and providing students with as many opportunities as safely possible. In the fall, the District reintroduced students to our school buildings grade by grade, allowing them time to adjust to the new safety protocols now in place, such as physical distancing, mask wearing, daily health screenings, and enhanced cleaning and sanitization. COVID-19 conditions this school year at times required our schools to pivot briefly to fully-remote learning. Currently, students in grades prek-8 and all special education students attend classes in person full time, while students in grades 9-12 attend classes on a hybrid model, which uses both in person and remote learning.The District also provides fully-remote learning for families who requested it.
Pandemic-related costs came largely from additional cleaning and disinfecting supplies and protective equipment such as masks, costing the District approximately $150,000. The District also invested $12,000 in cellular hotspot technology to ensure students whose families did not have internet at home are able to access their classes at times of remote learning. Transportation costs were down slightly due to a lack of field trips and fewer interscholastic athletic events. Because the current budget was designed with flexibility in mind, the District was able to absorb these costs without creating a deficit. With supplies and a year of experience adapting to the COVID-19 crisis now in hand, the District is in a good position for next school year with little impact on the 2021-22 budget. Looking forward, our emphasis will continue to be on returning students physically to a safe learning environment and restoring/improving our traditional school programs to meet the evolving needs of our students.
Federal Relief Grants
This April, school officials learned that Chatham CSD is eligible for a total of 2.2 million in federal funding through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan. This grant money is separate from the general budget and will be spread out over the next several several years. It is intended to assist schools with one-time educational expenses and is restricted in how it can be used (for example, it cannot be used to reduce taxes). As this is a recent development, school officials are awaiting additional details on how the money can be used and how to apply for the funds.
What happens if voters do not approve the budget?
If voters do not approve the budget proposal on May 18, the Board of Education has the following options: put the same budget or a revised budget up for vote on June 15, or adopt a contingency budget. If the budget is again defeated on June 15, the Board must adopt a contingency budget.
The NYS property tax cap law holds a contingency budget’s tax levy increase at 0 percent, requiring the District to levy the same amount of taxes or less as it did in 2020, regardless of cost increases. A contingency budget prevents spending on new equipment and also limits public use of District facilities. However, all state mandated programs, whether funded by state aid or not, would be retained.
These regulations mean that in a contingent budget, the Board would need to make $1,127,239 in cuts from the budget proposal. The District would be required to eliminate any projected purchases of new equipment from the budget (except where safety is concerned), including replacement buses, and would have to consider program reductions, including cuts to instructional and non-instructional budgets.